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Universities in Crisis

The marketised college and university system is unravelling in this crisis, writes Dr Sol Gamsu

UK universities face massive financial difficulties and it looks like massive redundancies are on the cards. With international student numbers likely to fall sharply, huge black holes have opened up in the budgets of UK universities. The threat of redundancies for the sector is very real. Now is the moment when we need to think creatively about how we resist and argue for new models of organising higher education.

What we have at present is a deeply unequal system where highly paid, unaccountable Vice Chancellor’s have heavily indebted our universities in order to compete in a marketized HE system. The levels of debt that many UK universities now owe through bond issuances to hedge funds is quite terrifying given that the sector as a whole faces a £2.5 billion black hole.

UCU commissioned a report highlighting the financial implications of covid-19 and there is now also a detailed institutional level breakdown of university finances which make for alarming reading.

If there is a gap in what has been said so far about this crisis, it is that there has been a lack of political thinking about the opportunity this moment represents. We may not have a radical reforming Labour government, but we do have a situation where there is space for new ideas and ways of thinking.

With Richard Hall and other colleagues, last May we published a document outlining ideas to re-envision higher and further education. Richard wrote recently about the moment we are now faced with:

So we might now ask, can we use this coronavirus moment for emancipatory ends? How might we use it to remember ourselves? How might we abolish the University-as is, and re-think education-as-will-be? (Hall, 2020)

In the flourishing of critical ideas, creativity and militant activity that was provoked by the 2018 university strikes, David Ridley’s piece on the value of the Lucas Plan for universities now seems powerfully prescient.

To paraphrase the Lucas Combine workers, higher education workers should use this moment to argue that we are prepared to press for the right to work on education which is socially useful and helps to solve problems of educational and social inequality rather than creating them.

The point of the Lucas Plan was to move beyond the narrow economism of traditional trades unionism which focused on jobs, pay and conditions and to question ‘the products on which we work and the way in which we work on them.’

What is needed is workers’ control – we need a participatory form of labour in higher education where staff, students and local communities work together to decide what education should look like and how it should be organised.

For students, this means breaking with concepts that have been narrowly and restrictively constructed to suit the model of a marketized higher education system. ‘Student experience’ has become a meaningless buzzword, a distraction from the reality of a higher education sector where students have radically different capacities to survive and even enjoy their education.

Elite institutions pay lip-service to improving the lives of students from marginalised groups but the reality is they are generally unwilling to challenge the deeply engrained sexism, classism and racism that is present on campus. It is an indictment that institutions are repeatedly forced to respond to incidents in the student and national press whilst doing so little to challenge a campus culture that can be toxic and often exacerbates multiple forms of inequality. Tiffany Page, Jayne Bullough and Anna Bull wrote about what a survivor-centred model might look like for higher education and how changing how universities deal with violence and abuse challenges the white, male, middle-class and heterosexual norms of higher education.

Hopes that this crisis may lead to an inversion of hierarchies between universities are not as straightforward as they might seem. Whilst it is true that the older, more socially selective institutions tend to have greater reliance on international students than their post-1992 peers, there are notable exceptions to this. Coventry and Sunderland both have high international recruitment and once debt is factored in, the implications of covid-19 will hit many new universities.

What the government is currently offering is many shades of inadequate. What was announced last week as a ‘bailout’ comes nowhere near plugging the holes in university budgets. The government has been kite-flying about mergers with further education colleges, wants to bring FE colleges back under national government control and is also looking at mergers amongst universities and perhaps the creation of ‘applied universities’ if a Policy Exchange report is anything to go by.  What appears to be on the cards may be ‘research funding for the “best”; mergers, shorter strings and localism for the “rest”’. As Rob Smith (co-author with Vicky Duckworth of a chapter on FE in our report last year) has warned, if the model for HE is the mergers experienced by the FE earlier this decade then we need to resist.

Both the government and senior university managers are witnessing the chaotic unravelling of a system they created; they built a heavily hierarchical, marketized system and they built it on foundations of sand. It is us as staff who will now bear the brunt of structural change from the right which could completely transform the sector.

We face a hostile government and a set of university managers whose reputation for financial acumen lies in tatters but whose power within their institutions currently remains unchallenged. Under these circumstances we should be laying out alternative plans. We need real tangible measures that we can take to change the way higher education runs so that it is run in the interest of students, staff and local communities. What we have now is a system built on kowtowing to market league tables so that maybe some Vice Chancellors might get a peerage or get to be a Principal of an Oxbridge college.

We should be writing our own Lucas Plans. In our university branches we should be formulating ideas and plans that could re-shape our system. Nationally, our union should continue to push for alternative models of higher education. We face a hostile political context but in those circumstances do we want to fight job losses and mergers whilst arguing for the system we want or do we want to simply fight job losses and mergers?

To do this we cannot rely on union branch committees or existing activists alone – we need to foster broader online communities of political praxis amongst staff and students to produce local educational combines. In our plans I hope we will seek to erode and overcome hierarchies of knowledge and power that are so deeply embedded within our sector.

Intra and inter-sectoral divisions fracture our union and the HE sector as a whole. Post-92 and Pre-92 universities, HE and FE – those who designed our educational system and those in control of it now have little or no interest in truly challenge the classism that lies behind many of these divisions. We have a system built on institutional binaries and hierarchies which fosters multiple forms of inequality within and on exit from education. Recognizing this should be key to our response – acknowledging our own role and position in hierarchical structures has to be central.

Integration or close collaboration with Further Education under a democratic, comprehensive and cooperative structure of post-16 education could be emancipatory. A more fluid and modular system of higher education which allowed people to construct their own degree programmes over longer periods could transform access. Degree pathways could become diffuse constellations of experience and education rather than linear trajectories focussed on pushing young people into scant forms of secure employment.

On a practical level, we need to look at the accounts of our own universities. Liverpool University UCU has already called for a salary cap of £100k in a detailed document outlining their response and demands in this covid-19 crisis. At my own institution, salary caps at £60k-£100k would free up £1.3m-£3.8m; a pre-tax income of over £60k (i.e. most Professors – not more junior university staff) put you in the top 6% of earners in the UK in 2018. Most of our Vice Chancellors are in the top 1% of earners in the UK – our universities are quite literally run by the 1%.

At the other end of the spectrum, the majority of HE staff are employed on precarious and much lower paid contracts. The demand by precariously employed staff for a two year ‘Corona Contract’ to guarantee their livelihoods during the crisis is another example of practical and radical grassroots demands. How could this be developed further? We need a long-term solution to precarious employment in HE and FE – what would a progressive and radical secure career structure look like? These are questions that we need to ask.

Saying and creating alternative ideas is a radical act. Doing this alongside fighting the everyday battles for secure employment and better teaching and learning conditions for our students is our only option. We are always in the process of building educational movements, not only within our union branches or our universities but facing outwards and speaking about the education we want and the education we need.

We must push our ideas and our hopes out into the public sphere. We must do this even though the outlook is grim. We can combine practical political activity with transformative and emancipatory thinking about the structures and forms of education we want. That is what the labour movement should be there to do. Ultimately, we are there to fight for workers’ control and, in the case of educational institutions, participatory democratic control from staff, students and local communities. We will only be able to rebuild the education and the society we want if we do so from the bottom up.

  • Dr Sol Gamsu is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Durham University where he is part of the Higher Education and Social Inequality Research Group. He researches elite higher and secondary education, geographies and histories of educational inequality and critical accounts of social mobility.
  • Read our report 'A New Vision for Further and Higher Education' here